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Ukraine poised for crucial vote

Public enthusiasm for the presidential election abounds in Kyiv, but Sunday's vote seems doomed in parts of Ukraine's east. Not just the results, but also how it is carried out will be critical for the country's future.

Saturday (24.05.2014) was a "day of silence" in Ukraine. Campaigning was banned, the mood on the streets in the unseasonably hot sunshine was subdued. Political leaders gathered at the ornate St. Sophia Cathedral in central Kyiv for a special "prayer for Ukraine" ahead of Sunday's crucial vote.

But it was also Kyiv day - a traditional celebration at the end of May - and many people on the way to the service wore colorful traditional Ukrainian shirts to mark the occasion. Presidential security kept the latecomers out, and those penned in at the entrance vented their frustration in furious political argument.

Amidst the shouting, a group of churchgoers - also shut out of the service - began to sing. Inside, members of the interim government joined together in prayer for the future of their country. This weekend, they know, is a crucial time.

Not just the outcome of Sunday's presidential election, but also how it is held will determine Ukraine's future. In a statement on the Ukrainian government's website, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk appealed to his people to participate in the vote, saying "the choice we make on Sunday and the responsibility on each of us is even higher."

Enthusiasm in Kyiv

Ballots in sacks being loaded onto a bus (Photo: Kitty Logan/DW)

Kyiv voters seemed genuinely enthused about the vote

In Kyiv, people seemed genuinely keen to go to the polls. Shoppers in the city center, just a few blocks from Maidan square, described the election as a culmination of their revolution against the Yanukovych government, and as a vote for independence.

That enthusiasm ws sustained into Kyiv's suburbs, with election officials busily loading blank ballots. Teams collected the documents in sacks and loaded them onto a bus, which - accompanied by a police escort - delivered them to polling stations. There, officials patiently counted the blank ballot papers, one by one, in readiness for the polls to open 8:00 a.m. on Sunday.

Viktor Derkach, who manages a polling station in outer Kyiv, said he is optimistic about the turnout. "I think a lot of people are willing [to vote], because a lot of them came to our polling station to check whether they are on the voter roster," he said.

Derkach hopes these elections will be more democratic and fair than previous ones - also "because the spirit of Ukrainians has changed following the events taking place right now in our country."

Doomed in east

But elsewhere in the country, particularly in eastern areas controlled by

separatist militants

, the election seems doomed. There are daily reports of harassment and threats of election workers. Many polling stations have already been shut down, before polling day.

Germany's negotiator in Ukraine, Wolfgang Ishinger, described the reports of intimidation as "terrible," but added that "every vote counts, and every polling station counts."

Ballots are counted and checked by hand (Photo: Kitty Logan/DW)

Ukrainians are hoping for democratic and fair elections - alothough up to 3 million people will be shut out of ballot booths in eastern Ukraine

"If one district in Donetsk can vote, that's better than if no district can vote. And if two districts can vote, it's better than if only one district votes," Ishinger said.

Observers here are resigned to the fact that as many as 3 million people in the east may not be able to cast their vote. Regardless, the election is likely to go forward in most of Ukraine.

Runoff could endanger stability

All eyes are on the frontrunner, Petro Poroshenko, who currently holds a confident lead in pre-election polls. The question now is whether he will gain the absolute majority to secure a first-round victory.

Although many observers now see that as doubtful, campaign managers at Yulia Tymoshenko's Kyiv headquarters remain hopeful. They say they do not think the polls reflect Tymoshenko's popularity; she is currently showing at a distant second place in the presidential race.

"There are often instances of manipulation of the [opinion] polls, and false ratings," said Andriy Pavlovskiy, a campaign team member at Tymoshenko's Batkivschyna Party. "It's [mostly] to influence the undecided voters," he said. Pavlovskiy cited researchers who claimed that despite only two days remaining until the election, up to 60 percent of voters are still undecided.

Voting instructions inside polling booth (Photo: Kitty Logan/DW)

A runoff could be contentious and divisive

Tymoschenko's party is convinced that those undecided voters will swing in her favor. Analysts say that if she does force a second round of election by denying Poroshenko an outright victory, the runoff could become increasingly bitter and closely contested.

That scenario presents a problem, since Ukraine urgently needs a new government that is stable. The fear are that the separatists in the east - desperate to take advantage of a power vacuum in Kyiv - may do even more to

destabilize the region

if faced with a protracted and closely-fought president process.

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